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Neighbors Growing Together | Jun 19, 2018

Letters of two families

Anne Frank and her letters to Danville family to be showcased in new museum
Jul 19, 2017
Photo by: Karyn Spory Janet Hesler, coordinator of the Danville Station, said the international correspondence exchange, which led to the Wagner sisters - Betty Ann and Juanita - receiving letters from Anne and Margot Frank started because of Birdie Matthews, a teacher at Danville. The correspondence between the Wagner and Frank sisters will be the cornerstone of the new Anne Frank exhibit at the Danville museum.

By Karyn Spory, Mt. Pleasant News


When Betty Ann Wagner picked up a copy of “The Diary of a Young Girl” in 1956, she thought the name of the author, Anne Frank, looked familiar. And it was,

On Tuesday, over a dozen people congregated at SunnyBrook to hear the story of two Danville’s sisters’ connection to author and Holocaust victim, Anne Frank.

The story begins with Birdie Matthews, Janet Hesler, coordinator of the Danville Station, tells the audience. “She was an innovative teacher,” she remarked.

Matthews started an international correspondence exchange for her students in 1939. In 1940, Juanita Wagner, Betty’s 10-year-old sister, sent her first letter to her pen pal, Anne Frank. In her letter, Juanita wrote about her family, including her sister Betty, and about life on the farm in Danville.

When mail came from Amsterdam, there wasn’t just one letter, Anne’s older sister Margot had sent a letter to Betty.

In the letters, the girls told about life in Amsterdam and Anne even enclosed a postcard from Amsterdam, relayed Hesler.

However, that was the end of the correspondence. Unbeknown to the Wagner sisters their European counterparts, who were Jewish, had gone into hiding as the Third Reich expanded their reach.

Anne, Margot and their mother were all killed in the Holocaust. Their father, Otto Frank, was the only family member to survive.

Betty and Juanita kept the letters. Hesler explained that Betty had eventually graduated early from Danville High School and moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a war correspondent. In 1956, just off the cuff, Betty purchased a copy of Frank’s book. When it dawned on her the book wasn’t the first written work of Frank’s that she had read, she began searching for her childhood correspondence.

The letters were authenticated and are the only known correspondences of Frank’s in English. “It is believed the girls (Anne and Margot) would write their letters in Dutch. Their father (Otto) would copy them to English and their girls would then copy that,” explained Hesler.

The letters were eventually sold at auction for $160,000 and are housed at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Calif. Copies of the letter are at the Danville Station.

As for the Danville museum, plans are to move the museum and the city’s library into the former lumberyard. “In January this past year the library moved into (the new building) and we’re working on the Anne Frank room. We’re really excited about what’s going to happen,” she said.

The room will be hidden behind a bookcase door and will feature correspondents between the Franks and Wagner sisters. “We’re really trying to make it look like the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam,” said Hesler.

“As you walk through the corridor it will have eight barn door beams and that represents the eight people who were in the attic with Anne and her family. As you walk though the corridor there will be a replica of the attic,” added Hesler.

The museum has been working with a professor from the University of Northern Iowa on the exhibit. Hesler said the room will be open by December.

Another component to the museum is a postcard display. In her first and only letter to Juanita, Anne included a postcard of Amsterdam, mentioning her hobby was “picture card” collecting. “I have already about 800,” she had written.

“Our eighth-grade class for the last three years has stated to collect (postcards) to represent the children killed during the Holocaust,” said Hesler. “Every year they do an international correspondence exchange and they send out letter worldwide to try to collect 1.5 million postcards.”

Hesler said the class isn’t quite to its goal, but the museum has been thinking about where they will store all of the postcards. “We have been in correspondence with Michael Berenbaum who was the project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1988-1993) and he has been responsible for bringing several pre-World War II railcars, like they transported Holocaust victims in to the United States,” said Hesler.

Barenbaum has three railcars and Danville has dibs on buying one, according to Hesler. The museum has received a grant from Vision Iowa to help with that purchase.

Hesler said the museum won’t solely focus on Frank. Other exhibits will focus on what Southeast Iowa was like during World War II and the difference between the Midwest and Europe.

“I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust and Ann Frank, but I didn’t realize the museum in Danville had such a connection,” said Gordon Katsion after the presentation.

Katsion said he believed during the war and even after there wasn’t a lot of knowledge in the Midwest of what was really going on in Europe. “I’m always surprised by how little here in the Midwest we know and understand of the Holocaust.” He added he hopes presentations like this and places like the Danville Museum will help to close that gap.

The discussion was part of a lifelong learning series at SunnyBrook, according to Marketing Director Bryce Kelly.

“I’m a Danville girl and I volunteered at the museum when it first opened up, I had a front-row seat to the history,” she said. “When I took the position here I knew this would make an awesome addition to our learning series.”

“Many in southeast Iowa have no idea this museum or this connection (to Anne Frank) exists here. I wanted Janet to come talk about Danville’s unique history,” she added.

SunnyBrook plans to take residents to the museum and the Anne Frank exhibit once it opens.

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